Friday, June 05, 2020

Ian Kershaw - Hitler, 1936-1945: Nemesis

If the first volume of Ian Kershaw's biography of Adolf Hitler teaches us how he could have been stopped, then the second tells us the consequences of failing to do that. The book begins in 1936 as Hitler is consolidating his own position and that of the Nazi regime. But the majority of the book deals with Hitler's obsessive preparations for war and the history of Hitler's roll in World War Two. Here one thing is clear. For Hitler wanted war. His adjutant Fritz Wiedemann recalled Hitler saying in 1938, "every generation must at one time have experienced war". As food shortages, hard work, low wages and, in particular, labour shortages began to take their toll in the late 1930s Hitler saw "war as panacea. Whatever the difficulties, they would be - and could only be - resolved by war." When finally made to comment on the anger among German farmers about the shortage of labour, he answered that their complaints would be dealt with after the war.

This obsession with war arose directly out of Hitler's worldview. The German people needed to be strengthened through the experience of conflict at the same time as restoring the country to its proper position in Europe. War eventually came in 1939. Hitler was surprised that Britain and France stood by Poland, as he'd been convinced by their actions of Czechoslovakia that they would back down. His disappointment that Germany hadn't been able to seize Czechoslovakia by force was now matched by excitement at the potential victories.

The machinations over the Ruhr, Austria and Czechoslovakia need not detain us her, but it is worth noting that Kerhsaw makes it very clear that, through their inaction, the British and French governments had allowed Hitler to strengthen his power base by proving he was able to regain national pride and territory as he had promised. Among most ordinary Germans, even including sections of the left who had bitterly opposed the fascists, Hitler's star was rising. This was taking place against the backdrop of intensifying repression of Jews and other minorities, but Hitler's successes in the international field helped his regime get away with increasing violence internally.

In war Nazism came into its own. It's worth quoting Kershaw on this:
The war now brought the circumstances and opportunities for the dramatic radicalisation of Nazism's ideological crusade. Long-term goals seemed almost overnight to become attainable policy objectives. Persecution which had targeted usually disliked social minorities was now directed at an entire conquered and subjugated people. The Jews, a tiny proportion of the German population, were not only far more numerous in Poland, but were despised by many within their native land and were now the lowest of the low in the eyes of the brutal occupiers of the country.
As before the war, Hitler set the tone for the escalating barbarism, approved of it, and sanctioned it. But his own actions provide an inadequate explanation of such escalation. The accelerated disintegration of any semblance of collective government, the undermining of legality by an ever encroaching and ever-expanding police executive, and the power ambitions of an increasingly autonomous SS leadership all played important parts. These processes had developed between 1933 and 1939 in the Reich itself. They were now, once the occupation of Poland opened up new vistas, to acquire a new momentum altogether. 
He continues:
The key area was Poland. The ideological radicalisation which took place there in the eighteen months following the German invasion was an essential precursor to the plans which unfolded in spring 1941 as preparation for the war which Hitler knew at some time he would fight: the war against Bolshevik Russia.
In volume one Kershaw introduced the concept of "working towards Hitler" as an explanation for how diverse parts of the Nazi state (in Germany and occupied areas) made the Holocaust and other aspects of Nazi ideology real. But Kershaw doesn't intend this to mean that Hitler was somehow unaware of what was transpiring. Some readers might hope that Kershaw has found some lost document detailing Hitler's thoughts or instructions about, say, Auschwitz. This is to misunderstand what the Nazi regime was and how Hitler operated.

Hitler provided a "general license for barbarianism" but others acted on it. In the case of the euthanasia of disabled people in Germany before the war started, Kershaw points out that Hitler "hand-picked" trusted Nazi "old-fighters" - "They knew what was expected of them. Regular and precise directives were not necessary".

Lack of evidence of Hitler's direct knowledge of the Holocaust arises in part because of his keenness "to conceal the traces of his involvement in the murder of the Jews". That said,
compared with the first years of the war when he had neither in public nor - to go from Goebbels's diary accounts - in private made much mention of the Jews, Hitler did now, in the months when their fate was being determined, refer to them on numerous occasions. Invariably, whether in public speeches or during comments in his late-night monologues in his East Prussian HQ, his remarks were confined to generalities - but with the occasion menacing allusion to what was happening. 
In fact, Kershaw has  assembled lots of comments, fragments and texts which make it clear that Hitler was aware of plenty of details of what was happening. Eg, in October 1941 Hitler said of the Jews "Don't anyone tell me we can't send them into the marshes". This reference refers to attempts to "drown Jewish women by driving them into the Pripet marshes". Goebbels, in his diary, referred to "the most brutal means" being used against the Jews. Later he wrote "A judgement is being carried out on the Jews which is barbaric, but fully deserved" and continued "the Fuhrer is the unswerving champion and spokesman of a radical solution".

While Hitler created the framework for Nazi followers to drive forward the Holocaust in horrific ways, he was very much culpable in what happened. As Kershaw concludes:

Hitler's role had been decisive and indispensable in the road to the 'Final Solution'. Had he not come to power in 1933 and a national-conservative government, perhaps a military dictatorship, had gained power instead. Discriminatory legislation against Jews would in all probability still have been introduced in Germany. But without Hitler, and the unique regime he headed, the creation of a programme to bring about the physical extermination of the Jews of Europe would have been unthinkable.

Hitler was, by the start of World War Two, convinced of his own infallibility. He never lost this belief, even as the tide turned and military forces advanced over Germany's territorial gains and then the country itself. Everyone else, the Jews, his generals, the German people, became objects for Hitler's scapegoating. Kershaw details the inability of Hitler to accept criticism, to trust generals and to understand the need to tactical decisions such as strategic retreats. It is notable here that Hitler's actions are very much linked into his world view. This is not simply about his inability to trust others, but a world view that saw the German people as being superior to everyone else. His paranoia arises out of his belief that defeat in World War One was not military, but the consequence of others.

But the Nazi state Hitler created was also culpable. It's breathtaking that as Germany's defeat becomes inevitable and as their power is reduced to almost zero, Hitler's various underlings remain dedicated to strengthening their own positions, however ludicrous it might be. The figure of Hitler within this remains constant and unbelievably powerful right to the end.

The book finishes with the defeat and suicide of Hitler. Amid the shattered ruins of Berlin, with the deaths of tens of millions of people arising out of the war and Holocaust, the conclusion has to be "never again". That said, how do the books stand up?

The first volume dealt with the rise of Hitler to power and the second with the war and Holocaust. But it strikes me that while these work as biography they don't entirely match up to Hitler's life. In his own review, Alex Callinicos writes:
[German historian Joachim] Fest argues that Hitler's political career can be divided into three phases. In the first, which lasted till the late 1920s, he was simply a fascist demagogue, in rebellion against a society that offered him no place, and in pursuit of the barbarous utopia of a racially pure German empire. Then, as power beckoned, Hitler developed a more realistic side--first carefully courting the German economic and military elites, and then, once in power, manoeuvring with great success to win control of most of Europe by diplomatic and military means. The final phase began as failure became plain--after the German defeat at Stalingrad in 1942-43. Hitler then relapsed into the racist fantasist of his youth, progressively ignoring the realities of power.

I think this fits well with what Kershaw describes. Hitler's obsession in the bunker with models of how Germany could be rebuilt and his obsessive return to stories about the early days of the Nazi party illustrate the point. It explains why Hitler put himself into supreme command of the army and why he refused to allow tactical retreat, or entertain the idea of negotiations with the Allies. At the end Hitler feels abandoned by everyone, including the German people. He had placed himself at the centre of the Nazi state, and when that collapsed, he blamed everyone else. Retreating into personal fantasy, he abandons the people themselves - it is striking (even to Goebbels) that as the fortunes of war turn Hitler, the arch-propagandist, refuses to speak in person, or by radio, to the German people. 

So while the two volume approach works as books, it doesn't quite work in terms of Hitler's life. I also felt the subtitles of the books, Hubris and Nemesis, imply an inevitability to the fall of Hitler. But Kershaw's whole story shows that there was no inevitability to anything that took place. Had things been slightly different Hitler might never have achieved power, but had other things been slightly different he might well have defeated the Soviet Union. The strength of Kershaw's books is that he places events in their historical context and there were many factors that shaped what took place.

But these criticisms are minor compared to the brilliance of Ian Kerhsaw's work. They are not easy reads - because of their scope and the material covered. But they are important works. As we struggle today against fascism and racism in all its forms, the lessons from history remain crucial. Ian Kershaw's work remains essential in our understanding of the past, in order to shape the future.

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